“Lest we forget” is a mantra that reminds us of an embattled truth: citizenship is about responsibilities as much as about rights. Although it takes the memory of war to underline this point, it applies not just to those in military service, but to everyone. We all have duties, among them a sacred duty to remember. But what does remembering look like?
Is it a head bowed in silence? The wearing of poppies? A noble trumpet piercing the cold air? No, these are but the accessories of memory. If memory were a quilt we were all making together, these would be thimbles and measuring tape.
Is it the telling of stories? The admiration of men who stormed enemy machine gun nests, casting aside their own safety for the greater good? The mourning of those who drowned face-down in the mud and were never found? The bringing of much-needed attention to the contributions of women? These are indeed some kind of memory, but this can’t be the full extent of our duty. On our quilt, these would be some of the lovingly detailed pictures around the border, which give context to the main elements. But what are the main elements? What’s the point of remembering these things? If these people we’re remembering could see us now, why would they want us to remember? Not for their own egos, surely.
On a basic level, the purpose of memory is to make the future better than the past. This requires being familiar with the past, not just in the sense of knowing it, but in the sense of not elevating it to an out-of-reach status. If our duty to remember is sacred, then any particular historical narrative must not be sacred — lest we forget to question it, lest we find it unrelatable, lest we shy from using it in debate.
Put another way, real memory is active; it manifests as debate and action. Remembering means acting as if the past can and will repeat itself if we don’t learn from it.
To that end, we must ask ourselves what forgetting might look like, so we will know if we do it. Would exporting weapons to inhumane regimes constitute forgetting? Or burning fossil fuels for decades after learning that they are creating future disaster? Or responding to terrorism with obtuse declarations of war, rather than serious discussions of what makes so many people vulnerable to the recruitment tools of evil? What about capitulating with the most powerful bully in the world?
Don’t tell me to leave politics out of it — as if the the dirty divisions of the present threaten to pollute the pristine memory of our glorious dead. I don’t have all the answers, but I know nothing can be further from pristine than the Battle of Vimy Ridge, that blender of blood and earth. And it’s precisely the terrible hardship of those thousands of killed and wounded college-age kids — as well as the uncertain inheritance of those being born today, who have no say in our decisions — that consecrates our duty to remember actively. That means debating our present decisions seriously, together, as if the wrong ones could send us down the same road again. Nothing could do greater dishonour to our ancestors than to mouth praises of their courage even as we squander the chance it bought us: to build our society through robust public disagreement, rather than through more bloodshed.
Yes, bloodshed is one method of building societies. Some of us do find primal appeal in masochistic images such as “forged in the crucible of war.” Countries committed to these images tend to have strong mythic identities and entrenched class systems, and think of governing as a process of answering the big questions. Forced constantly to compare its own identity with such confident monoliths, Canada feels awkward. On the conservative (and anglophone) side, we like the story of a former British colony that “came into its own” at some point — though of course, on terms set by Great Britain, measuring up to their bar instead of setting a new one for ourselves. On the progressive side, we reject the colonial identity, but if pressed to explain, describe ourselves as … the US, but nicer?
On both sides, we feel deprived of a generally agreed-upon mythic identity, so if you’re of the colonial persuasion, you probably felt gratified when, at the “Vimy 100” ceremonies this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said (in French), “Canada was born here,” and Charles, Prince of Wales, agreed, “This was Canada at its best.”
But the centenary of the worst bloodbath in Canadian history is not a time for gratification. Rather, it’s a time to feel the weight of the torch thrown to us from failing hands, and instead of becoming mesmerized by its light, use it to see ourselves clearly. Societies built on bloodshed tend to renew themselves through more bloodshed. Fortunately, Canada’s real birth occurred much earlier.
As explained by John Ralston Saul in his book, A Fair Country, Canada was born hundreds of years before Vimy — and Confederation — when European settlers began arriving in a beautiful, bewildering, difficult landscape and were taken in by the existing inhabitants: sophisticated, millennia-old civilizations, who taught the settlers to survive the winters and intermarried with them, in some cases creating whole new peoples. Although later waves of settlers betrayed this friendship in the worst way, the Indigenous-inspired essence of Canada survived: a philosophy that says newcomers are interesting and useful, and should be welcomed as well as expected to contribute as quickly as possible; a preference for the stability of complexity over the gratification of simplicity, and a resulting ability to work through practical matters with a focus on fairness, without obsessing over abstract questions.
These are the founding strengths of Canada, and they are still our saving graces. By all means, we should take pride in Canada’s many accomplishments, including our military accomplishments, when fighting was the only option left. But we should beware the idea of ourselves as children of Britain or France, and still more the idea that we came of age by joining in the bloodbaths typical of monolithic European societies addicted to the resolution of abstract differences. The fact that we fought as allies then, and are friends now, does not mean we’re cut from the same cloth. As the UK, among other Western powers, hunkers down for another dangerous round of trying to define its identity once and for all, it’s vital for Canada to have the sense that we don’t need to join that dubious venture.
That starts with knowing our real history, which is not at all like that of the US, the UK, or France. It continues with being able to explain ourselves on our own terms, so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of others. And it continues with equality for Indigenous peoples, so that all Canada’s founding peoples can move forward together. And it continues with long debates about the decisions we make, using more than just economic arguments, as if we had a real past and future. And it continues. Fundamentally, Canada prefers continuing to finishing, and although this looks like meekness or disorder through an imperial lens, it has in fact proven a great strength.
I say all this in an attempt to unstick the ingredients of a psychological dissonance best exemplified by the National Post’s article on the Vimy centenary: Thousands of Canadians pay respects at Vimy Ridge: ‘We haven’t learned a thing, have we?’ From the headline, one might expect some of the active remembering I called for above. Instead, the article is utterly standard: uncontroversial depictions of the horrors and aftermath of war, feel-good declarations of France’s continued gratitude for Canada’s sacrifice, and wistful images of the tranquil, picturesque Vimy monument.
None of this is wrong or inaccurate per se; the shortcoming lies in the complete disconnection of the past from the present. Despite the article’s placement in the politics section, it steers well clear of any reference to present or recent decisions. It’s as if the first world war had been a terrible storm, with purely natural causes, and it were therefore not incumbent on us to compare our present actions with those that preceded it.
The critical thought from the headline is slapped on, book-report style, as a vaguely sobering end note. The World War II veteran whose life story opened the article gets the final word:
“We haven’t learned a thing, have we?” Willie McGregor said, his voice full of wonder. “I think of this world, and it is still a terrible mess.”
Thus, although the reader’s underlying helplessness regarding world events remains, they get the pride of having reflected soberly, and the comfort that even an old war hero doesn’t know how to fix the world — so what can I do? Keep calm and carry on, I suppose. Remember, but only passively.
There’s the glue we reapply annually on Remembrance Day, and this month as a special touch-up. In our continued brotherhood with Great Britain and France, we are supposed to find enough comfort to stay resigned to having learned nothing. This patching-over of our psychological dissonance depends on thinking of Canada as a fresh-faced child of the European imperial tradition, perhaps bringing to it some progressive values but nothing fundamentally different. And for those of us committed to really making something of those progressive, inclusive, non-racial values, this narrative makes it difficult because they are seen as a recent addition to an essentially colonial civilization — and therefore can be indefinitely postponed by shouts of “but can we afford it?”
Reality is less cozy, but more useful: Canada is an entirely different beast, with a core of largely Indigenous philosophy obscured by a lately applied coat of colonial paint. There is therefore no comfort for having learned nothing. We don’t share the romantic inevitabilities of the French or British empires, and should not equate their continued admiration with the fulfillment of our potential.
It’s uncomfortable to look around at “the terrible mess” of the world and have no one on whom to model ourselves. It’s uncomfortable because our false colonial identity is so influential that many of us don’t know what to think without it. We don’t know what to put in its place, even if we admit it’s a fake. Perhaps this is the difficulty: nothing directly replaces it.
Canada is different from France and Britain in that it has no monolithic identity. But we don’t need one to see the obvious next steps from which we’d all benefit enormously: stop fighting Indigenous leaders in court cases destined to end in their favour; move real money and power in their direction. First, these are simple human rights issues. But also, as the descendants of Canada’s original leaders regain their share of power, we will see ourselves more clearly and be in a position to make a unique contribution to the world’s struggles.
The fact that there is no monolithic identity to replace the false, colonial one means we don’t all have to agree on a replacement, thank God. We don’t have to do anything rash; we don’t have to exit the Commonwealth or the Francophonie; we will continue our friendship with Europe; we will continue to observe Remembrance Day. But hopefully, we will not shy away from remembering actively — even if that offends some of our friends, even if we thereby offend each other.
Some will refuse to admit that most wars are caused not just by the aggression of the enemy but by our own mistakes. It’s easy to see why: it muddies the emotional water of noble remembrance with shame. And it’s natural to be ashamed of terrible mistakes, but shame isn’t the point; learning is. Only by admitting mistakes can we learn from them, and only by learning can we do right by our ancestors, and our descendants.